TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is always heated, with plenty of name-calling, rock-painting and trash-talking, but it’s been fairly one-sided for the past six years. Actually, Tennessee has had about as much success as Nick Saban finding a hair out of place (hair movement is a sign of weakness).
With the proposed changes in Southeastern Conference scheduling, and a bigger push for competitive balance, this game needs to be competitive or Tennessee could be replaced by a team that Alabama won’t automatically beat by 25 every year.
Unlike its most recent attempts at football, Tennessee has shown signs of life this year. They have nothing major to play for this year—other than a potential appearance in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl—but the Volunteers can be very satisfied with spoiling their archrival’s chance at a third consecutive national title. With their new coach and new positive outlook in tow, the Vols pushed Georgia to overtime, injured Connor Shaw and beat South Carolina, and need to have a good showing against Alabama to solidify this run of decency.
“We need to start winning these games,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. “Our players understand the challenge ahead and we have a tremendous amount of respect for what they have done, but it is a rivalry game and we’re looking forward to Saturday.”
The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry may not be as heated as the in-state Iron Bowl rivalry between Alabama and Auburn, but it is more historic. While Alabama and Auburn had a 40-year period from 1907-1948 where they did not play each other, Tennessee and Alabama first played in 1901 and have played every year since 1928, excluding 1943 because of a scheduling conflict due to World War II. Saturday will be the 97th time the Crimson Tide will play the orange hound-dogs, and this year’s game looks to be the most competitive matchup since 2009.
“Their whole team has really improved. They’re executing a lot better,” Saban said. “I think their entire offensive team is playing extremely well.”
Tennessee’s players claim to not fear the Crimson Tide, even though they have lost six straight games against Alabama. They have a renewed sense of confidence and have even resorted to mind tricks when approaching Saturday’s game. Tennessee’s players are calling Alabama “the red team” because the thought of “Alabama” is self-defeating.
“Mentally, just by their name, when teams hear that name or when it comes to playing against them, they’re mentally beat already before they step on the field,” Tennessee wide receiver Pig Howard said.
But having the right mindset won’t be enough for Tennessee. Alabama is currently on a bit of a hot streak. The offense is dominating on the ground, AJ McCarron is becoming increasingly efficient through the air, and the defense has only allowed one touchdown since Sept. 14. While Tennessee is an important game for some Alabama players, they are just another “faceless” team on the docket for the always bland McCarron.
"Just another week, another game. That’s the way we need to prepare for it,” McCarron said. “Every week is a rivalry week to me because it’s the next opponent on the list and they're trying to keep us from our goal, so it really doesn’t matter to me.”
While McCarron is known for having the responses of someone who would rather be doing his income taxes than talk to the media, some of his teammates feel an extra sense of significance around the Tennessee game, and are very fond of the traditional celebratory cigars after a victory.
Alabama offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio had only word to describe the feeling of smoking cigars at Tennessee’s expense.
“Righteous,” Kouandjio said. “You know the feeling of victory, the feeling of accomplishment, and you have the cigar to prove it. It’s a good feeling.”
Even though “The Third Saturday in October” falls on the fourth Saturday in October, the game will hopefully live up to some of the expectations, or maybe it’ll be 42-0 Alabama and everyone will leave after halftime. Either way, both teams are ready for Saturday afternoon.
“I know how big this game is for the state of Alabama,” Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “We have to treat this game like it’s our last game of the season. We have to play our best football.”